After comeback year in 07, Timbers want to go further

Team hopes to top final four finish with more games, goals
by: L.E. BASKOW, Timber forward Bryan Jordan (left) drives a shot into the goal in a May game against Seattle. Coach Gavin Wilkinson will have at least a dozen returning players, including Jordan, this 

To put it in soccer terms, last year at this time, the Portland Timbers were getting ready to take a goal kick, and this year, they already are in the attacking third.

The Timbers have more players in the fold, more players about to sign and far more experience on board than they did 12 months ago.

Second-year coach/General Manager Gavin Wilkinson says he expects more from the team, as well.

'My ambition is to go further in the playoffs than we did last year,' Wilkinson says.

That would require a run to the finals, because the Timbers were in the final four of the United Soccer Leagues First Division in 2007 before they lost to eventual league runner-up Atlanta on penalty kicks. It was, amazingly, Portland's only defeat at home all season.

'It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth,' Wilkinson says. 'We should have won the home game. We didn't take care of business.

'This year, we have to finish the league strongly, whether we come in first or seventh (in the regular season), so we go into the playoffs peaking.'

Wilkinson took over a team that was in shambles as it tied for last place in 2006. A good nucleus from 2007 -10 players -already are under contract for this season. Two others also have been signed.

'Because we're a lot further ahead in putting the team together, we'll be a lot more effective and get things done a lot quicker (in preseason),' Wilkinson says.

The schedule will be announced soon. Teams will play 30 games, six more than they did last season.

'I expect our schedule to be a little better than it has been, while still not ideal,' Wilkinson says. 'We're looking at the best dates to maximize attendance, given the stadium availability, and that isn't always the best for the players. So we want the roster to be a little deeper, with two players at every position who are able to play at this level. We didn't have that last year.'

Signed for 2007 are forwards Bryan Jordan and Chris Bagley; midfielders Andrew Gregor, Lawrence Olum, newcomer Miguel Guante, Neil Dombrowski, Kiki Lara, Tom Poltl and Tom Taylor; and defenders Cameron Knowles, Scot Thompson and recently acquired Tim Karalexis.

Forward David Hague, a rookie in 2007, is training with Sunderland in England but is expected back, too.

The Timbers succeeded last year despite struggling at times to score goals. 'I'd like to bring in possibly one more forward and another right- and left-sided midfielder,' Wilkinson says.

The club is 'hopefully close' to re-signing midfielder Shaun Higgins, and the league's top goalkeeper in '07, Josh Wicks, will be back, Wilkinson says. Talks with the agent for backup keeper Bayard Elfvin have slowed.

'We need another quality goalkeeper,' Wilkinson says. 'The more pressure on Wicks to remain a good professional and continue his progress, the better.'

It's up in the air whether defender Justin Thompson will return. Karalexis, acquired last month in a trade that sent unproductive midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer to Charleston, could fill the void for either Thompson or Leonard Griffin, now with Columbus of Major League Soccer. Karalexis, 27, is 6-2, 190 pounds and can play any fullback spot

'Tim has a lot of (First Division) experience,' Wilkinson says. 'He's an athletic player, a specimen of an individual, with the ability to play MLS. But he will have to come in and earn his spot.'

Some of the players already are training here; the preseason officially starts March 17. The Timbers plan to bring 40 to 60 hopefuls to a tryout camp Jan. 19 and Jan. 20 at PGE Park.